Bodily Presence and emotion in online learning

Garrison, Aderson and Archer (2000, p.87) outline three crucial elements of an educational experience in their community of inquiry template; cognitive, social and teaching presence. See image below.


(Garrison et al. 2000, p.88)

One sub category of ‘social presence’ is ‘emotional expression’ and is seen as being essential for achieving learning outcomes. (Garrison et al. 2000, p.95). Dreyfus also argues that learning may not surpass the stage of ‘competence’ without students being emotionally involved, and goes further to state that emotional involvement requires embodiment (2001, ch 2, p.39).  He also claims that students are more emotionally involved, and care more about their learning when an ‘intimidating’, physically present teacher is there in the flesh.


James Dwight supports Drayfus by bundling together emotion and embodiment but hints at the fact that technologies are, in a way, part of our bodily presence (2001, p.146). He also reflects on our symbiotic relationship with digital technology and our ‘posthuman’ state, combining biological, social and digital presence (2001, p.149). This is very much in line with Cousin’s view of digital technologies as an extension of the nervous system (Cousin. G, 2005, p.119). Seen in this light, your online presence could be considered part of your bodily presence and therefore not so easily separated from your emotions.

Imagination and emotional engagement

Adding fuel to the argument against the claim that online learning is devoid of emotional involvement, Blake (2002, p.384) gives examples of his experience with ‘flaming’ to demonstrate how online interactions can have significant emotional impact. He also highlights the role imagination plays in emotional engagement in both online and face-to-face interactions. From this he concludes that it is our imagination and psychological connections that make interactions emotionally engaging, not just our physical presence (Blake 2002, p385). In fact, our imagination can give us the illusion of presence or of ‘non-mediation’ where the technology seems ‘invisible’ as described by Lombard M. and Ditton T. (1997, p.8). Here is a popplet me and my peers created with their concept of presence laid out: Presence. It is easy to see how recent developments, such as the Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens will help aid this illusion of presence and thus increase emotional engagement.

My Experience as an online learner

I agree with Drayfus (2001, ch2, p.39) that emotional involvement is fundamental to learning but, as a student on this course, I do not find online learning to be less emotionally engaging. On the contrary, my emotional engagement seems higher due to the exposure of my thoughts to a potentially wider public audience. Apart from taking part in discussion forums, I find writing this blog to be an enormously risky and emotionally charged experience. Rarely do you share your writing with other students and possibly the public in ‘traditional’ face-to-face learning environments.

My experience of online teacher presence

Garrison et al. suggest that teaching presence can also come from anyone within a community of inquiry and not just the teacher, i.e. your peers (2000, p.90). Despite this, the main responsibility for the design and facilitation of a course often lies with the teacher (Garrison et al. 2000, p.90). I must say that the level of support and teacher presence on my current course in Digital Technologies for language Teaching has been excellent so far, if not better than my experience in face-to-face learning environments. I am acutely aware that there are human beings at the other end of the line and I can feel their presence through our online interactions. That said, I come to this course as an adult, have clear objectives and clear expectations of what an MA entails. Higher education obviously requires a high level of learner autonomy, and my expectations of teacher presence were therefore relatively low. I am also a teacher who believes in the importance of peer evaluation and collaboration in learning. This means that I am happy to take more control of my learning and accept the teacher as a guide or facilitator. Other, less experienced or less autonomous learners may find online education more difficult due to their specific expectations, level of study, subject of study and context. That said, the level of support or teacher presence does not necessarily increase just because your course is face-to-face.


Blake N. (2002), Hubert Dreyfus on Distance Education: relays of educational embodiment. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 34, 4, pp. 379-385

Cousin. G, (2005) Learning from cyberspace in Land, R. and Bayne, S. (eds) Education in cyberspace. (London, Routledge Falmer. pp. 117-129.

Dreyfus H.(2001) On the Internet London, Routledge, ch 2.

Dwight J.  (2004) Review Essay. On the Internet. E-Learning, 1, 1,  pp.146-152.

Garrison et al. (2000) Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. Elsevier Science Inc; The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), pp. 87-105
Lombard, M. and Ditton, T. (1997) At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3: 0. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00072.x


Community of inquiry image

Garrison et al. (2000) Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. Elsevier Science Inc;  The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), pp. 87-105

Featured image (viewed on 22/11/15)


Microsoft HoloLens (viewed on 22/11/15)